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Millennium blues from a rebel feminist; interview: katie roiphe

The thorn in the side of America's feminist establishment is at it again, upsetting liberals with a book attacking the sexually permissive society
I meet Katie Roiphe at Cafe Lalo on New York's Upper West Side. She looks fashionably scruffy in plaid bootleg-cut pants and a camel peacoat and bears only a vague resemblance to the glamorous photograph published in a recent Harper's Bazaar magazine, along with an excerpt from her latest book, Last Night In Paradise: Sex And Morals At The Century's End. It's a slightly uncomfortable blend of autobiography and cultural criticism, reflecting Roiphe's, and by extension society's, confused and complex response to the aftermath of the sexual revolution and Aids. Roiphe seems completely unconcerned about her appearance today, in spite of the fact that she is expecting to be photographed. She wears no make-up at all and her dark curls looking distinctly untamed - if not uncombed.

She is unusual looking - by turns almost beautiful as well as almost plain, like one of those pictures that flashes another image when you tilt it slightly. The odd combination is at least as fascinating as beauty on its own. All the more so because it is as if Roiphe were the physical embodiment of the duality she expresses in her writing. She's a conservative liberal, a feminist who wants a man to take care of her, still the child who viewed the "exhilarating and tumultuous" Seventies from "the distant, disapproving, order-craving vantage point of childhood."

Roiphe first came to public attention with her 1993 polemic The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism. A critique of the feminist preoccupation with issues such as date rape and sexual harassment, the book caused considerable controversy. She now dismisses it as "obviously written by a 23-year-old. I was this young liberal woman on a college campus not believing the things that I was supposed to believe. So I wasn't a conservative and I wasn't a liberal. People in this country are very attached to those categories and if you're saying anything more complicated than that, it's hard to get across."

But she is difficult to place. She has all the accoutrements of a hip young thing in appearance and conversation, including the habit of randomly inserting the word "like" in her sentences ("The men I know are like, 'Wait a minute, a lot of the women we know are more successful than us, why do we have to pay for dinner?'"). On the other hand, she rejects much of the conventional wisdom of her generation. "How do people create morality for themselves in a world in which we no longer have the traditional social structures and taboos? How do we deal with the legacy of the sexual revolution? What is intimacy if you've slept with all these different people?" she asks. "To say you're not totally happy with sexual freedom is hard for someone in my position to do. Suddenly it seems that I am denouncing this way of life that I am supposed to want as a young person. But it's allowed people to come up to me and say that they feel the same."

It has also won her fans on the "way, way right", most notably Pat Buchanan, which seems to surprise her as much as it must appal her mother, the liberal feminist writer Anne Roiphe. And she's already had Baptist ministers trying to convert her on the radio. "They're like, 'Your book is a cry tor help! We've got a moral code for you!'" she says.

But Last Night In Paradise does seem to be a call for rules of some kind. "My mother was like, no curfew and we were allowed to have boys stay over when we were 14," she says. "When I was in high school it was almost like I wanted someone to say, 'Don't do this and this is why.'"

The "this is why" lesson was eventually provided by her older sister Emily, whose heroin addiction and subsequent testing positive for HIV is brilliantly evoked in the book's introduction. Emily didn't mind. "In my family we all accept that we're going to write about each other." It's a shame she didn't write more. Last Night In Paradise would have worked well as a memoir, using what happened in her own family as a microcosm of what has happened in society at large.

I would have liked more on Roiphe's childhood and teenage years and fewer anecdotes about groups of teenagers re-telling apocryphal Aids myths about lipstick messages scrawled on mirrors after unprotected sex with attractive strangers. As it is, the biographical details of the book are more tantalising than revealing. As Roiphe puts it: "I have a kind of flirtation with the memoir. I hint at things and don't develop them." But despite America's current obsession with literary memoirs, Roiphe was determined not to write a personal book. "I feel it's a very limited kind of writing," she says.

A memoir would have required her to draw the fine line between liberalism and the just plain carelessness of parents who allowed their teenage daughters to stay out all night, let alone have one descend into bruised-armed, unwashed, mossy-toothed drug addiction without even noticing.

But she hints. For example, in the midst of a long analysis of the movie Kids, she drops in: "One can't help wondering where the adults are while all this drinking, pot smoking and mindless sex is going on, which is something I remember wondering during my own teenage years." It remains one of many unanswered questions in the book. "Where were they, by the way?" I ask. "Well... " she hesitates before answering. "I remember one summer my parents being gone for two months or something." But she is quick to add that they were there most of the time. "They had a laissez- faire attitude towards child-rearing," she says. "But so did a lot of parents. They are only just discovering that it wasn't such a good idea after all."

And once Roiphe got to her early twenties, her mother became a lot less laissez-faire. "Now she's like, 'Stop doing books and make sure your personal relationships are in order,' even though she's this feminist. She thinks about wedding dresses and things. It's really sad," Roiphe says wryly, clearly pleased at this conventional turnaround.

It's obvious that she doesn't have any secrets from her parents, but that doesn't mean they're unshockable. In a recent article for US Esquire magazine, "The Independent Woman (And Other Lies)," Roiphe wrote of her conflicting desires to take care of herself as well as be taken care of by a man. "The man in the grey-flannel suit lives on in my imagination, perplexing, irrational, revealing of some dark and unsettling truth." It infuriated mainstream feminists, most notably her mother, who is still getting over it. "She was totally horrified," says Roiphe gleefully. How else does one rebel against liberal parents?

'Last Night In Paradise: Sex And Morals At The Century's End' is published by Little, Brown in the US